Creative Casseroles

Busy cooks have long appreciated casseroles. These one-dish meals lend themselves to endless creativity.

By FamilyTime


A casserole is at once a preparation and the dish in which it's served. The preparation is made with at least two ingredients, while the container is usually a deep, ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid.

Casseroles are favorites with busy moms -- particularly those who need to prepare food ahead of time. Many casseroles freeze well and the organized home cook may have two or three stashed in the freezer at any given time, ready to defrost and heat with no fuss.

Classic Casseroles
Everyone loves macaroni and cheese, lasagna, and tuna-noodle casseroles. These classics exemplify what makes a good casserole: easy to prepare, full of warm, familiar flavors, blessed with creamy, smooth textures, and requiring nothing more than a fork to eat.

Noodles and rice are commonly used to bind the ingredients in casseroles. Other typical ingredients are ground meat, chopped chicken, canned tuna, cheese, and sturdy veggies such as broccoli and beans.

Casseroles have far less liquid than stews. The sauce is often a creamy white sauce (made from butter, milk, and flour), cheese sauce, tomato sauce, a simple mixture of milk and sour cream, or a can of undiluted cream soup. Yogurt, which curdles at high temperatures, is not recommended unless a specific recipe calls for it.

Casseroles may be topped with buttered bread crumbs, grated Parmesan cheese, or crunchy dried onions, crumbled potato chips or taco shells, or dry cereal. These toppings brown in the oven for added texture.

Contemporary Casseroles
Today's cooks have moved beyond tuna-noodle and lasagna to create casseroles that appeal to today's appetites.

Think of fresh tuna, salmon, crab meat, lobster, lean chicken, firm tofu, and ground turkey breast when planning your next casserole. Augment these with brown rice, wild rice, and whole-grain pasta.

For meat-free casseroles, consider dried beans and legumes such as lentils and black-eyed peas. Use canned kidney or black beans or soak and cook the dried versions. Corn, squash, spinach, cauliflower, lima beans, and mushrooms are all great in casseroles.

Potatoes are not commonly found in casseroles because they do not reheat or freeze well. They show up in some, like old-fashioned Shepherd's Pie, which calls for mashed potatoes spread over the top of the ground meat. Others call for sliced potatoes or browned chopped potatoes.

A little cheese in a casserole goes a long way. Don't hesitate to experiment with good melting cheeses such as Fontina, Gruyère, Swiss, and others. Crumble feta or farmers cheese on top of the dish, or substitute sharp cheddar for a more familiar mild cheese.

Firm fruits, such as apples and pears, are delicious in some casseroles. Try pairing them with turkey sausage, for instance.

Casserole Savvy
Assemble the casserole ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap, refrigerate, and then heat it just before serving. It will hold in the refrigerator overnight or during the day while you are at work.

In most instances, the ground meat, chicken, or fish should be cooked first. Don't overcook them - remember they will continue to cook a little as the casserole heats in the oven.

This same logic applies to pasta and rice. Cook them until just tender and then toss with the other ingredients.

If you plan to freeze the casserole, cook it thoroughly, as though you were going to serve it. Let it cool to room temperature, cover it with foil or the casserole dish lid, and then freeze it for up to a month.

Most casseroles can be reheated directly from the freezer. Make sure the cookware you choose is freezer-to-oven safe. Put the covered casserole in a moderate oven - 350°F. - and heat it until hot and bubbling, about an hour.

Remove the lid or foil for the final 10 minutes to brown the top of the casserole.

A successful casserole, served in the dish in which it's cooked, needs only a green salad and perhaps a loaf of bread for a filling, satisfying meal.